How to save on software--safely

SAN FRANCISCO (10/27/2003) - Maureen Thomas had a challenge: to create a Web site that would provide information and links to job placement resources for welfare-to-work participants, many of whom had never used a PC, much less a Web browser. Complicating the task further, Thomas, a computer resources manager for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, had no experience building Web sites and no budget to speak of.

Thomas tried several Web design programs but found most of them too time-consuming to learn, too expensive, or both. Then she came across the CoffeeCup HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) editor on a shareware download site, which filled the bill perfectly.

"Basically, I needed something with easy image placement and resizing, font versatility, and the ability to easily place lots of links on the site," Thomas explains. "CoffeeCup let me do all that without ever even visiting the help page." The price? A bargain-basement US$40.

Of course, everyone's needs are different, and anything less than a full-featured, shrink-wrapped software package with all the bells and whistles might not work for you. But if you're like a lot of managers these days, you have to do more with less, on a budget that's seen more slashing than the projectionist at a drive-in. If you're willing to do a little research, you might be able to save a few bucks on your next software purchase--without compromising productivity or security.

The first step is to take a hard look at which features you really need. (If you're shopping for a utility, start by making sure Windows doesn't already provide one that'll suffice.) Maybe you've already got an antivirus program and a firewall, for example, but you need a better spam filter--and who doesn't? If so, the $20 IHateSpam for Outlook is a great, inexpensive choice. Or maybe you need to do occasional word processing and spreadsheet work, but not enough to warrant opening your wallet for Microsoft Office. In that case, try the free OpenOffice.

Gotta Shop Around

Once you've determined what you need, you can focus on finding the most affordable software for the job. Since most software developers now offer free trial versions of their products, it's easier than ever to shop around and determine first-hand which tool works best for you. You might settle on a simple downloadable freeware utility, or a collection of individual apps that together can do what a more expensive, bundled package does.

If you're lucky, you'll find downloadable shareware that does the job and costs less than anything you'd find ensconced in shrink-wrap. Prices for seemingly comparable shareware apps can vary as widely as share values on the Nasdaq index over the past five years, so if you find a tool that sounds promising but breaks your budget, just keep searching. Chances are there's another one out there that'll do the job for the right price.

Patty DeViva learned that lesson first-hand. When DeViva, Web and media manager at Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pennsylvania, needed a Web statistics application, she looked around online and downloaded a trial version of Funnel Web Analyzer, a package that retails for $900. "It was useful software," she says, "but with the school's budget constraints, I really couldn't afford it." Eventually, DeViva discovered AccessProbe, an application that had all the features she needed. "The icing on the cake," says DeViva, "was going to my boss and letting her know that all we needed was $40."

It's important to find a trustworthy download site. Okay, I'm a little biased, but PC World's own download library does a great job of testing its offerings for stability, spyware, and viruses. Also helpful are sites that include user reviews and ratings. Evaluations from other users can often help you spot functionality holes or incompatibilities that could mean the software just won't work for you.

Shareware Havens

Two of the biggest and most widely known shareware sites are Download.com and Tucows. Both of these sites are comprehensive and well organized, with thousands of shareware and freeware apps for virtually any operating system. You'll also find evaluations, advice, and such practical details as file sizes, download times, and system requirements.

No doubt the biggest hassle involved in trying out any software--but especially freeware--is ousting unruly gangs of spyware, adware, and other pests that can end up clogging your hard drive.

To guard your hard drive against uninvited guests, look for sites that test and screen the shareware for tagalongs. (Not many sites do this, since most make money by posting adware-supported downloads.) Some sites, like Download.com, say they'll "do their best" to label the titles that include adware; but ultimately, it's up to you to keep the spies at bay.

Always read the end-user licensing (also called terms of service) agreement before you download. If the software includes any spyware or adware, the agreement should mention it. Also, perform a custom install if you can, and closely monitor what's coming on board during the download. If you see files with the names of companies known as adware producers (Cydoor and Gator, for example) or with names other than the maker of the program you're downloading, chances are you're getting adware.

If you haven't already done so, install a good antiadware application and regularly use it. Lavasoft's Ad-aware and Spybot Search and Destroy are popular (and free) utilities that will reliably rid your system of unwanted adware files.

Before you invite any strange files onto your hard drive, make sure you have a burly uninstaller that will make them disappear--for good--when you want them to. A good free option is MyUninstaller. Finally, don't forget to flush out your Registry regularly; Registry Healer will do the job painlessly. (The free version of this utility fixes only a few problems at a time. If your Registry is really messy, you're better off investing $20 in the full version of Registry Healer.)

Make no mistake: Shareware isn't always the answer. A lot of lazy, sloppy programs lurk out there, and insidious spyware makes security a constant battle. But if you're patient and you know how to download safely, you just might find exactly the software you need--and keep your budget healthy to boot. And what could be better than that?

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